1. The Cask of Amontillado
by Edgar Allan Poe
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eNotes: Table of Contents
The Cask of Amontillado: Introduction1.
The Cask of Amontillado: Edgar Allan Poe Biography2.
The Cask of Amontillado: Summary3.
The Cask of Amontillado: Characters4.
The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Discussion5.
The Cask of Amontillado: Themes6.
The Cask of Amontillado: Style7.
The Cask of Amontillado: Historical Context8.
The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Overview9.
The Cask of Amontillado: Essays and Criticism
Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado♦
Irony in The Cask of Amontillado♦
Duplicity and Doubling in "The Cask of Amontillado"♦
Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"♦
"The Cask of Amontillado": Some Further Ironies♦
"The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity♦
The Cask of Amontillado: Compare and Contrast11.
The Cask of Amontillado: Topics for Further Study12.
The Cask of Amontillado: Media Adaptations13.
The Cask of Amontillado: What Do I Read Next?14.
The Cask of Amontillado: Bibliography and Further Reading15.
The Cask of Amontillado: Pictures16.
The Cask of Amontillado 1
2. The Cask of Amontillado: Introduction
‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ was first published in the November 1846 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, a
monthly magazine from Philadelphia that published poems and stories by some of the best American writers
of the nineteenth century, including Nathaniel Hawthorne Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher
Stowe. The story next appeared in the collection Poe's Works, edited by Rufus W. Griswold, Poe's literary
executor, in 1850. By the time Poe wrote this story, he was already nationally known as the author of the
poem ‘‘The Raven’’ (1844) and of several short stories collected in a book called, simply, Tales (1845).
These earlier stories were widely reviewed and argued over by critics who found them brilliant and disturbing,
and their author perplexing and immoral. Although "The Cask of Amontillado'' was not singled out for critical
attention when it appeared, it did nothing to change the opinions of Poe's contemporary admirers and
detractors. Like Poe's other stories, it has remained in print continuously since 1850.
The story is narrated by Montresor, who carries a grudge against Fortunato for an offense that is never
explained. Montresor leads a drunken Fortunato through a series of chambers beneath his palazzo with the
promise of a taste of Amontillado, a wine that Montresor has just purchased. When the two men reach the last
underground chamber, Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall, builds a new wall to seal him in, and leaves
him to die. Several sources for the story have been suggested in the last century and a half: Edward
Bulwer-Lytton's historical novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1843); a local Boston legend; a collection of
Letters from Italy; and a real quarrel Poe had with two other poets. Wherever Poe got the idea and the impetus
for ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ this story and Poe's other short fiction had an undisputed influence on
later fiction writers. In the nineteenth century, Poe influenced Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson
among others. Twentieth-century writers who have looked to Poe include science fiction writer H. P.
Lovecraft and horror author Stephen King.
According to Vincent Buranelli, Poe's short stories also influenced the music of Claude Debussy, who was
"haunted" by the atmosphere of Poe's tales, and the art of Aubrey Beardsley, as well as the work of other
composers and artists in the United States, Great Britain, and in Europe. Poe was criticized in his own time for
daring to examine a crime with no apparent motive, and a murderer with no apparent remorse. For one
hundred and fifty years, these themes have continued to challenge readers, who are attracted and repulsed by
The Cask of Amontillado: Edgar Allan Poe Biography
Edgar Allan Poe's early life was as strange and unhappy as some of his most famous fiction. When he was
born in Boston in 1809, his parents were actors in traveling companies; his father died in 1810 and his mother
in 1811. Edgar and his sister and brother were left penniless, and Edgar was taken in by a Virginia merchant,
John Allan, whose last name Edgar took as his middle name. Poe lived with the Allans in England from 1815
to 1820 and attended school there. His relationship with Allan was strained, because Allan was rather
heartless and unsympathetic to his wife and foster son. When Poe began studies at the University of Virginia,
the wealthy Allan refused to help support him, and Poe turned to gambling, with little success.
The Cask of Amontillado: Introduction 2
3. Edgar Allan Poe
After a short time at the University, Poe moved to Boston and began his career as a writer. In 1827 he
published his first volume of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, at his own expense, but found few readers.
These early poems were heavily influenced by the Romantic poets. His first paid publication was the short
story ‘‘MS. Found in a Bottle’’ (1833), which drew the attention of a publisher who admired his work and
who got him an editorial job. He soon lost the job because of his drinking. Shortly afterwards, in 1836, he
married his cousin Virginia Clemm, who was thirteen years old.
During the eleven years of his marriage to Virginia, Poe had a series of publishing successes and personal
failures. He moved his family to New York and Philadelphia and back again, editing and contributing to
various magazines. He published several short horror stories and narrative poems, including "The Murders in
the Rue Morgue'' (1841), one of the earliest detective stories ever written, the psychological horror story "The
Tell-Tale Heart'' (1843), and the melancholy poem ‘‘The Raven’’ (1845), which brought him national
fame. His brilliance as a writer was now firmly established. Still, he could not escape his addiction to alcohol.
Virginia Poe, wife of Edgar Allan Poe
In 1846, after losing a series of editorships, Poe retreated with his wife to a cottage in Fordham, outside New
York City, where they nearly starved. There Poe wrote ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ its gloomy and
cynical tone echoing Poe's own feelings. The Poe biographer William Bittner claims that the two characters in
the story "are two sides of the same man Edgar Poe as he saw himself while drinking.’’ A few months later
Virginia died of tuberculosis, and Poe became despondent. He wrote several important pieces during this time,
The Cask of Amontillado: Edgar Allan Poe Biography 3
4. but though he tried again to give up drinking, he never succeeded. He died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, at
the age of forty, after an alcoholic episode.
The Cask of Amontillado: Summary
"The Cask of Amontillado" was first published in 1846. The first-person narrator, Montresor, is unreliable and
is attempting to explain his actions of 50 years before. The story begins with Montresor addressing someone
familiar, who knows the "nature of my soul." He explains that he had borne "the thousand injuries of
Fortunato," but finally Fortunato went too far, and he devised a plan for revenge.
Fortunato does not suspect Montresor's plan. In fact, when they meet in the street during carnival, Fortunato is
very glad to see him. Fortunato is dressed like a jester, and has been drinking. Throughout the story,
Montresor exploits Fortunato's interest in wine. First, he tempts Fortunato by claiming he has purchased a
cask of Amontillado, which is a dry sherry, but he is unsure if its authentic. Instead of asking Fortunato
directly to examine the Amontillado, Montresor says he will ask another because Fortunato is busy, thereby
playing upon both Fortunato's pride and greed.
Fortunato agrees to accompany Montresor home, where the servants have all gone to enjoy the festivities.
Montresor grabs two torches and leads the way into the family catacombs, which are lined with nitre and
cause Fortunato to cough. Montresor says they will go back, but Fortunato wants to see the Amontillado,
claiming, "I shall not die of a cough," to which Montresor replies, "True—true."
While they walk deeper into the catacombs, Montresor describes his family's coat of arms and motto, which is
"Nemo me impune lacessit," or "No one insults me with impunity." They also consume more wine. When
Fortunato makes a secret sign of the masons, Montresor does not understand. Fortunato asks him for a sign he
is of the masons, and Montresor produces a trowel from his cloak. Although Fortunato seems to be confused,
he still wants to see the Amontillado, and they continue deeper into the tombs.
At the end of the crypt, there is a room lined with bones, with a pile of bones on one side. Fortunato, looking
for the cask, steps into a small interior recess, and Montresor quickly chains him to the wall, taunting him
with all the opportunities he had allowed for Fortunato to back out. Fortunato, in shock, can't comprehend
what is happening as Montresor uses the trowel and stone and mortar buried under the pile of bones to wall up
Fortunato comes to his senses and begins to moan and test the chains. Montresor waits until Fortunato stops
shaking the chains, then continues boarding up the crypt. He raises the torch to look inside, and Fortunato
begins screaming. Montresor is shocked, and unsheathes his sword, afraid Fortunato's screams will be heard.
But reassuring himself of the solid walls of the catacombs, he also begins to yell, louder than Fortunato. After
this, "the clamourer grew still."
The Cask of Amontillado: Summary 4
5. View of casks or barrels of wine aging in an underground cellar
Nearing midnight, Montresor is nearly finished the wall. When there is only one more stone to be added,
Fortunato begins to laugh, and says in a sad voice that he has enjoyed Montresor's joke, but it is time to be
getting back to the palazzo, where his wife and others are waiting. "Let us be gone," Fortunato says, and
Montresor repeats, "Yes…let us be gone." At this, Fortunato realizes Montresor is serious, and says, "For the
love of God, Montresor!" Again, Montresor repeats, "Yes…for the love of God." Fortunato grows quiet at this.
Although Montresor calls out to him, he hears only the sad jingling of the bells on Fortunato's jester's cap.
Montresor says his heart grew sick at that sound, but explains the "dampness of the catacombs made it so." He
hurriedly finishes the wall, placing the pile of bones in front. Lastly, he states, "For the half of a century no
mortal has disturbed them," ending with, "In pace requiescat," or "May he rest in peace."
As the story opens, an unnamed narrator explains, ‘‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I
could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.’’ There is no hint as to whom the narrator is
speaking or writing, and the "thousand injuries'' and the "insult'' committed by Fortunato are never described.
Nevertheless, the narrator contemplates his desire for revenge and his plan to "not only punish, but punish
with impunity''; that is, to punish Fortunato without being caught or punished himself. Furthermore, he is
determined not to act in secrecy, for Fortunato must know that his pain is handed to him by Montresor.
Fortunato has no idea that Montresor is angry with him—Montresor has given no hint of it. When Montresor
encounters his "friend'' on the street one evening during the carnival season, Fortunato has no reason to be
suspicious. Montresor asks Fortunato to come with him and sample a large cask of Amontillado, a type of
wine, which Montresor has just purchased. Fortunato is justifiably proud of his ability to recognize good
wines, and he is already drunk. He is easily persuaded to follow his friend, especially when Montresor assures
him that if Fortunato cannot sample the wine for him, another man, Luchesi, will surely do it.
Montresor and Fortunato, who is dressed in his carnival costume of striped clothing and a conical jester's cap
with bells, go to Montresor's palazzo. Conveniently, the servants are away enjoying the carnival, and no one
sees them enter. They descend a long, winding staircase to the wine cellar and catacombs, the dark and damp
tunnels and caverns beneath the palazzo where generations of Montresors have been laid to rest. As they walk
on, they pass piles of bones and piles of wine casks, intermingled in the passageways. Montresor fusses over
Fortunato's health and his schedule, knowing that the more he suggests Fortunato give up the quest, the more
his companion will be determined to see it through.
As they walk along, the men converse in an idle way, about the potentially hazardous nitre forming on the
walls, and the coat of arms of the Montresor family. To protect Fortunato from the damp, Montresor gives
The Cask of Amontillado: Summary 5
6. him drinks of two wines that are stored in the catacombs. When Fortunato reveals himself to be a member of
the Masons, Montresor pulls a trowel from beneath his cape and declares that he, too, is a mason. Always
Fortunato is pulled forward by the promise of the Amontillado.
Eventually they reach the last chamber, a crypt nearly full of piled bones with only a small alcove of empty
space within. When Fortunato steps to the back to look for the Amontillado, Montresor quickly chains him to
two iron staples fastened to the wall. He uncovers a pile of building stones concealed beneath some of the
bones and begins to build a wall, sealing Fortunato in. As Fortunato recovers from his drunkenness and
becomes aware of what is happening to him, he cries out for mercy, but Montresor pays no attention. He still
refuses to speak of the offenses that have brought him to the point of murder, and Fortunato does not ask why
Montresor is ready to kill him. Montresor finishes his wall and piles bones up against it, leaving Fortunato to
In the last lines, Montresor the actor is replaced again by Montresor the narrator, who began the story. Now he
reveals that the murder happened fifty years before. In Latin he speaks over Fortunato's body: ‘‘Rest in
The Cask of Amontillado: Characters
Fortunato is an Italian friend of Montresor's, and his sworn enemy, whom Montresor has planned to ‘‘punish
with impunity. ‘‘Although Montresor's explains that Fortunato has committed a "thousand injuries’’ and a
final "insult," no details of these offenses are given. Fortunato displays no uneasiness in Montresor's company,
and is unaware that his friend is plotting against him. Fortunato, a respected and feared man, is a proud
connoisseur of fine wine, and, at least on the night of the story, he clouds his senses and judgment by drinking
too much of it. He allows himself to be led further and further into the catacombs by Montresor, stepping past
piles of bones with no suspicion. He is urged on by the chance of sampling some rare Amontillado, and by his
unwillingness to let a rival, Luchesi, have the pleasure of sampling it first. His singlemindedness, combined
with his drunkenness, leads him to a horrible death.
Luchesi is an acquaintance of Montresor's and Fortunato's, and another wine expert. He never appears in the
story, but Montresor keeps Fortunato on the trail of the Amontillado by threatening to allow Luchesi to
sample it first if Fortunato is not interested.
Montresor is the "I" who narrates the story, telling an unseen listener or reader about his killing of Fortunato
fifty years before. Montresor is a wealthy man from an established family, who lives in a large "palazzo'' with
a staff of servants. He speaks eloquently and easily drops Latin and French phrases into his speech. He has
been nursing a grudge against his friend Fortunato, who has committed several unnamed offenses against him,
and has been coldly planning his revenge. Meeting Fortunato in the street one evening, Montresor takes this
opportunity to lure his friend into the deepest catacombs beneath his palazzo, and there he chains Fortunato to
the wall of a small alcove, seals him in behind a new brick wall which he builds even as Fortunato begs for
mercy, and leaves him to die. Montresor's coldness sets him apart from many murderous characters and many
Poe protagonists. Even as he tells the story fifty years later, he reveals no regret for his actions, and no real
pleasure in them. This lack of feeling made Poe's early readers uncomfortable, and led some to accuse Poe of
immorality in creating such a character.
The Cask of Amontillado: Characters 6
7. The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Discussion
"The Cask of Amontillado" is a story of revenge, but the reader is never told exactly what Fortunato did to
warrant such vengeance. In fact, throughout the story, the reader gradually realizes that Montresor is an
unreliable narrator; that whatever insult Montresor believes Fortunato committed is probably imagined or
exaggerated. It's certain that Fortunato has no idea of Montresor's anger, and this makes the story even more
tragic and frightening. The seemingly happy jangling of the bells on the top of Fortunato's cap become more
and more sad the deeper the two venture into the catacombs.
In the beginning of the story, Montresor defines revenge. He says he must "punish with impunity." He states if
the avenger is caught, or does not make the punishment known to he who committed the wrong, the wrong
With this in mind, he sets the trap for Fortunato. He gives Fortunato numerous opportunities to back out,
using the tricks of classic conmen by playing on Fortunato's greed and pride. In fact, it is Fortunato who
insists they carry on to find the Amontillado, and this will no doubt torture him as he is buried alive.
Montresor also provides hints as to what he plans to do with Fortunato. He seemingly miraculously comes up
with a cask of Amontillado during carnival, which Fortunato can scarcely believe. He tells Fortunato, "You
are a man to be missed," and after Fortunato says he won't die of a cough, Montresor agrees. His family motto
is "No one insults me with impunity" and he is carrying a trowel. Yet Fortunato suspects nothing, and is so
shocked when Montresor chains him to the wall, he doesn't even try to fight.
The structure of the story places the events 50 years in the past. Montresor, perhaps on his own deathbed, is
telling someone, perhaps a priest, the story, but not with any remorse. He still believes Fortunato wronged
him, and at the end eerily says "In pace requiescat," or "May he rest in peace."
The Cask of Amontillado: Themes
The force that drives Montresor to commit the horrible murder of Fortunato is his powerful desire for revenge.
His first words in the story speak of it: ‘‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but
when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.’’ The idea of revenge is repeated several times in the
opening paragraph. Montresor will not rush to act, he says, but ‘‘at length I would be avenged''; he is
determined to "not only punish, but punish with impunity.’’ The terms of the revenge are quite clear in
Montresor's mind. He will not feel fully revenged unless Fortunato realizes that his punishment comes at
Montresor's hand; a wrong is not redressed "when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who
has done the wrong.’’ In seeking revenge, Montresor is acting out the motto of his people, as it appears on
the family coat of arms, Nemo me impune lacessit ("No one wounds me with impunity’’).
As countless critics have pointed out, the nature of the injuries and offenses is never revealed. Montresor
appears to be telling or writing his story to someone who has more knowledge than Poe's reader (‘‘You, who
so well know the nature of my soul’’), and who may be assumed to know something of Fortunato's conduct
before the fateful night. Unlike Montresor's audience, however, Poe's audience/reader has no basis for judging
the extent to which Montresor's actions are reasonable. The focus, therefore, is not on the reason for revenge,
but on the revenge itself, not on why Montresor behaves as he does but only on what he does.
Just as Montresor does not reveal his motive for the crime, other than to identify it as a crime of revenge,
neither does he share with his audience his response when the deed is done. Does Montresor feel better once
Fortunato has paid for his insult? Does he feel vindicated? Does he go back to his rooms and celebrate the
death of his enemy, or smile inwardly years later when he remembers how he was able to ‘‘punish with
The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Discussion 7
8. impunity’’? He does not say. Nineteenth-century audiences scanned the story for hints of negative feelings.
Is Montresor sorry for committing murder? Does he regret his actions? As he nears the end of his life does he
look to God for forgiveness? Again, there is no hint or perhaps only the barest of hints. Poe's intention is to
focus his story tightly. He does not explore the events leading up to the crime, nor the results of the crime, but
focuses the story narrowly on the act of revenge itself.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Although the action of the story revolves almost entirely around the deception and killing of Fortunato, the
questions in readers' minds have revolved around Fortunato's thoughts and deeds before the crime, and
Montresor's thoughts and deeds afterward. While the time between their chance meeting and the laying of the
last stone would have taken only five or six hours, the fifty years following are perhaps more intriguing. Is
Montresor deceiving himself or his audience when he attributes his momentary sickness to ‘‘the dampness of
the catacombs'' ? What has happened to Montresor over the intervening years, and why is he telling the story
now? Is he hoping for forgiveness?
For forgiveness to occur, there must first be guilt and then atonement or remorse. Of course, there is no
question of Montresor asking forgiveness of Fortunato, or reconciling with him, and no mention is given of
Montresor's paying any reparations to Lady Fortunato. Atonement, if there is to be any, must be with God
alone. At the time of the murder, however, Montresor hears and rejects Fortunato's appeal that he stop ‘‘For
the love of God, Montresor!’’ The murderer replies, ‘‘Yes, for the love of God!'' but he does not stop
building his wall. Surely he does not mean that he is acting for the love of God; instead, he is blatantly and
defiantly rejecting it.
In other ways Poe keeps the idea of the Christian God in the foreground. Fortunato is chained to the wall in a
standing position that some critics have compared to the posture of the crucified Jesus. His narrow space
behind the wall echoes Jesus's placement in a tomb. The story's last words, In pace requiescat (Rest in peace),
are taken from the Roman Catholic funeral ritual spoken in Latin. Critic John Gruesser believes that
Montresor tells the story of his crime ‘‘as he presumably lies on his deathbed, confessing his crime to an old
friend, the 'You' of the story's first paragraph who is perhaps his priest.'' Clearly Montresor's guilt is
established as not just an earthly legal guilt, but guilt in the eyes of a God that both victim and murderer
recognize. The question remains: Was Montresor ever sorry for what he did? Poe does not appear interested in
answering the question, although he surely knew that he was raising it, and knew that he had placed the
answer tantalizingly out of reach.
The Cask of Amontillado: Style
Point of View and Narrator
"The Cask of Amontillado'' is told in the first person by Montresor, who reveals in the first sentence that he
intends to have revenge from Fortunato. He tells the story to an unidentified "you, who so well know the
nature of my soul,’’ but this "you" does not appear to respond in any way as Montresor delivers a long
monologue. The most striking thing about Montresor's voice, in fact, is its uninterrupted calm and confidence.
He tells the story from beginning to end with no diversion, no explanation, and no emotion. If he is gleeful at
gaining his revenge, or if he feels guilty about his crime, he does not speak of it directly, and his language
does not reveal it. Even at the most terrifying moment in the story, when Fortunato realizes that Montresor
intends to seal him up behind a wall, the narrator is calm and detached: "I had scarcely laid the first tier of the
masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest
indication I had of this was a low mourning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken
man. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth.’’
The Cask of Amontillado: Themes 8
9. By presenting the story in the first person, Poe avoids hinting at any interpretation of the action. Montresor is
in control, deciding what to tell and what to leave out. A third-person narrator, even a limited narrator who
could not see into the minds and hearts of the characters, would have presented a more balanced story. An
objective narrator telling a terrible story objectively might be frightening, but even more frightening is a man
telling without emotion the story of his own terrible crime.
The setting of ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ has attracted a great deal of critical attention, because both the
location and the time of the story are only vaguely hinted at. To bring touches of the exotic to his murky
atmosphere, Poe freely combines elements of different nations and cultures. Fortunato and Luchesi are
Italians, knowledgeable about Italian wines. Montresor, as argued convincingly by Richard Benton and others,
is a Frenchman. Amontillado is a Spanish wine. Montresor's family motto, Nemo me impune lacessit, is the
motto of the royal arms of Scotland. Sprinkled among the Latin motto and other Latin phrases are references
to Montresor's palazzo, his roquelaire, his rapier, and his flambeaux. If Poe's readers could not be expected to
identify the nationality of each element, so much the better for creating the impression that the story happens
"in another place and time.’’
The time of the story may be guessed at. Montresor's short cape and rapier, the slightly formal vocabulary,
and the torches used to light the men's way seem to indicate that the story takes place in the eighteenth or
nineteenth century. Scholars tracing the family name of Montresor and the history of laws governing the
Mardi Gras carnivals in France have placed the date of the murder more precisely; John Randall III and others
believe the murder occurs in 1796, while Benton argues for 1787-88.
Poe is often considered a master of the Gothic tale, and ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ contains many of the
standard elements of Gothicism. Gothic stories are typically set in medieval castles and feature mystery,
horror, violence, ghosts, clanking chains, long underground passages, and dark chambers. The term "Gothic''
originally referred to the Goths, an ancient and medieval Germanic tribe, but over time the word came to
apply to anything medieval. The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole' s Castle of Otranto (1764), was set in a
medieval castle, and later works that attempted to capture the same setting or atmosphere were labeled
Poe was fascinated with the materials and devices of the Gothic novel, although he preferred to work in the
short story form. He was a great admirer of Walpole, and of the American Gothic writer Charles Brockden
Brown."The Cask of Amontillado’’ takes many details from the Gothic tradition: the palazzo of the
Montresors with its many rooms, the archway that leads to the ‘‘long and winding staircase’’ down to the
catacombs, the damp and dark passageway hanging with moss and dripping moisture, the piles of bones, the
flaming torches that flicker and fade, and the "clanking'' and "furious vibrations of the chain'' that Montresor
uses to bind Fortunato to the wall. The overall atmosphere of brooding and horror also come from this
Some elements of the Gothic, however, Poe intentionally avoided: there is no hint in "The Cask of
Amontillado,'' or in most of his horror stories, of the supernatural. Poe was quite clear on this point,
explaining that the plot of a short story "may be involved, but it must not transcend probability. The agencies
introduced must belong to real life.’’ Montresor's crime is terrible, but it is believable, and it is committed
without magic or superhuman power. Although there may be a hint of the supernatural in his remark that
‘‘for the half of a century no mortal has disturbed'' the pile of bones outside Fortunato's tomb, those beings
that might not be mortal are not described, and indeed Fortunato does not reappear as a ghost or a vampire or
a zombie. Poe uses Gothic conventions to create an atmosphere of terror, but then subverts the convention by
using only human agents for terrible deeds. For Poe, it is not supernatural beings that people should fear; the
real horror lies in what human beings themselves are capable of.
The Cask of Amontillado: Style 9
10. The Cask of Amontillado: Historical Context
The Short Story
Although there have been stories as long as there have been people to tell them, many critics trace the
beginnings of the short story as a genre of written prose literature consciously developed as an art form to the
nineteenth century. Previously in the West there had been great ages of epics memorized or extemporized
orally, narrative poetry, drama, and the novel, but it was not until the early 1800s that critics began to describe
the short story as a specific art form with its own rules and structures. In Europe, Honore de Balzac and others
were already writing and theorizing about the new form. An early American voice in the discussion was Poe's.
In 1842 he wrote a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales (1842), a collection of thirty-nine brief
stories and sketches, many dealing with the supernatural. In his influential review, Poe delineated the
differences, as he saw them, between poetry, the novel and the ‘‘short prose narrative.’’
Rhymed poetry, according to Poe, was the highest of the genres. But the ‘‘tale proper,’’ he claimed,
‘‘affords unquestionably the fairest field for the exercise of the loftiest talent, which can be afforded by the
wide domains of mere prose.'' The novel was inferior because it could not be read in one sitting, therefore
making it impossible to preserve a ‘‘unity of effect or impression.’’ The ideal short story, one that could be
read in thirty minutes to two hours, was created to produce one single effect. If a writer's "very initial sentence
tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there
should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established
design.’’ Poe praised Hawthorne and Washington Irving for their skill with the new form, and kept firmly to
the goal of the ‘‘single effect’’ in his own fiction. For this reason, his prose is almost exclusively in the
short story form, and he limited each story to a small number of characters, simple plots, small geographical
areas, and short time frames, as demonstrated in "The Cask of Amontillado.''
In the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a great call for Americans to develop a national literature,
by which was meant a body of works written by Americans, published by Americans, and dealing with
particularly American characters, locales, and themes. The United States was still a young country, and most
American readers and writers looked to Europe for great books and great authors, as well as for literary forms
and themes. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave an influential address titled ‘‘The American Scholar,’’ in
which he called upon Americans to combine the best of European ideas with a determined self-knowledge, to
create the new American intellectual who would best be able to lead the nation. Writers and publishers hoped
that a national call for a national literature would create a stronger market for their products, which were being
outsold by European imports.
Poe, although he had the same difficulty supporting himself through writing as his contemporaries, did not
whole-heartedly embrace the movement. On the one hand, his published criticism and reviews railed against
writers who wrote mere imitations of popular European writers. But neither did he approve of writing that was
too patriotic, that offered cliched praise of the United States with little artistic merit. He was also critical of
those who praised inferior work simply because it was American. Like Emerson, Poe believed in using
elements from Europe if they were useful artistically, and he believed that international settings helped
establish universality. Still, he called upon American writers to use their imaginations to produce original and
vital works. In ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ therefore, he used a European setting to create his exotic and
murky atmosphere, but within the structure of the new and distinctly American short story form.
The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Overview
When it appeared in the monthly magazine Godey's Lady's Book in 1846, "The Cask of Amontillado,'' like
most short stories published in locally distributed magazines, attracted no special critical attention. A year
The Cask of Amontillado: Historical Context 10
11. earlier, Poe had published a collection of Tales, which had been widely reviewed. Most of these reviews were
favorable, praising Poe's powers of imagination and control of language. George Colton's review in the
American Whig Review was typical in heralding the volume's "most undisputable marks of intellectual power
and keenness; and an individuality of mind and disposition, of peculiar intensity.'' A few were not only
negative but scathing, including Charles Dana's review in the Brook Farm Harbinger in which he describes
Poe's stories as "clumsily contrived, unnatural, and every way in bad taste.'' Significantly, the collection of
tales was read and reviewed in all parts of the country, and helped bring Poe to a much larger audience than he
had previously enjoyed.
After Poe's death in 1849, his literary executor Rufus W. Griswold wrote an obituary in the New York
Tribune, in which he slanderously exaggerated Poe's weaknesses. He described Poe as a ‘‘shrewd and
naturally unamiable character'' who "walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in
indistinct curses.’’ The following year, Griswold published an edition of Poe's Works. In response to the two
Griswold projects came a flurry of writing about Poe, much of it praising the writing but condemning the
writer. Typical was an unsigned 1858 review in the Edinburgh Review: "Edgar Allan Poe was incontestably
one of the most worthless persons of whom we have any record in the world of letters.’’ Over the next fifty
years, negative writing about Poe focused on his moral character, as presented by Griswold, more than it
focused on his work. Critics seemed unable to move beyond the general observation that Poe led a troubled
life and wrote troubling stories. Although critics and scholars continued to read and examine Poe's short
stories, and although French and German writers continued to admire Poe, his reputation and importance
declined throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the public's distaste had worn off, and critics were able to
write more objectively about Poe's achievements. In the early third of the century, Poe was widely praised for
his poetry, but Gothicism had fallen out of favor and his stories were dismissed by such writers as T.S. Eliot
and W.H. Auden. Though the poem "The Raven'' had been examined individually from its first publication,
"The Cask of Amontillado'' had to wait until the 1930s to have critical articles devoted to it. In the 1930s and
1940s, critics focused on tracing Poe's sources, arguing that Poe borrowed his plot from other
nineteenth-century writers, a murder case in Boston, a literary quarrel from his own life, or other sources.
Writers in the 1990s returned to the question of sources as a way of revealing Poe's intentions. Richard Benton
is among those who suggest that the story can be read as historical fiction, based on real historical figures and
addressing social class issues of interest to nineteenth-century Americans.
Other critics at mid-century were concerned with exploring the significance of details in the story that readers
might not be expected to understand without explanation. Kathryn Montgomery Harris in Studies in Short
Fiction (1969) and James E. Rocks in the Poe Newsletter (1972) analyzed the conflict in the story between the
Roman Catholic Montresor and Fortunato, a Mason. Rocks concluded that Montresor kills Fortunato because
"he must protect God's word and His Church against His enemies.’’ Other writers in the same period
explored the significance of the names "Montresor,'' "Fortunato," and "Amontillado."
The largest body of criticism of the story has examined Montresor's remorse or lack or remorse for his crime.
Daniel Hoffman, in his Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe agrees with many others that Montresor is consumed
by guilt."Has not Montresor walled up himself in this revenge? Of what else can he think, can he have thought
for the past half-century, but of that night's vengeance upon his enemy?’’ Others find no hint of guilt in
Montresor, leading some early readers to reject the story as immoral. Bettina Knapp places "The Cask of
Amontillado’’ among Poe's ‘‘shadow tales,’’ which do not ‘‘offer values. No judgmental forces are at
work. Crime is neither a negative nor a positive act. Poe's psychopaths do not distinguish between good and
evil, nor do they usually feel remorse or guilt.'' This issue has become the central critical question for ‘‘The
Cask of Amontillado.’’
The Cask of Amontillado: Critical Overview 11
12. The Cask of Amontillado: Essays and Criticism
Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado
Edgar Allen Poe, the master of the macabre, understood the fine line between good and evil, between the holy
and the profane. He knew how to penetrate the subconscious of his readers by subtly playing off of their most
deeply held beliefs. In “The Cask of Amontillado”, Poe brilliantly interweaves religion into a dark tale of
revenge. The effect is a once profound and haunting.
The story is told as a first-person confession, possibly to a priest “who so well knew the nature of my soul.”
The language is ripe with religious overtones. The action implies a death march, a procession to death
designed to avenge insults suffered by Montresor and his ancestors. The drinking of wine, the ringing of bells,
and the lighting of candles are all part of Montresor’s “black mass”. Fortunado, the unwittingly victim,
becomes the sacrifice in a wholly un-Christian ceremony.
Poe carefully selects language that resounds of sacramental rites. Montresor admits that when he first smiles
at Fortunado’s arrival, it “was at the thought of his immolation.” (A Latin-derived word, immolation means
to kill as a sacrifice and carries strong religious connotations.) Montresor’s language designates him as the
executor of divine punishment or retribution. His motivation, which can be interpreted as a heavy-handed
perversion of the Golden Rule, is clear: “[A wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make
himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.”
Poe often uses foreign expressions with religious overtones. As is common in Roman Catholic masses,
Montresor utters Latin phrases: “In pace requiescat!”(Rest in peace) and “Nemo me impune lacessit.”(No
one punishes me with impunity.) The wine that lures Fortunado to his death, Amontillado (which means from
the mountain in Italian) recalls Moses’ trek up Mt. Sinai and the God-given laws that came to be as a result.
The primary action of the story recalls Jesus Christ’s procession to Calvary, the place of his crucifixion. We
follow Fortunado on his long and arduous procession down through Montresor’s family’s catacombs. The
journey into darkness passes by the bones of Montresor’s ancestors, as Christ had done when he passed
Golgotha (place of skulls) before his death. The walk is slow, deliberate and difficult for Fortunado as was
Christ’s walk through Jerusalem. Fortunado leans on Montresor desperately as he walks down the narrow
passageways. We are reminded of the times when Christ required assistance along the route to meet his
The centrality of wine to the story directs the reader again to a religious theme. The very title of the story
expresses the importance of the sometimes-sacred beverage. In fact, Montresor explicitly says Fortunado’s
weakness is that, “He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine.” Montresor depends on this hubris to
lure Fortunado into what would eventually become his tomb. When Fortunado toasts Montresor over a
draught of Medoc wine it becomes a Last Supper-like toast before a crucifixion. Poe twists the ordinarily
sacred significance of wine to consecrate a sadistic ritual celebrating Montresor’s cruel revenge.
As they do during the blessing of the Holy Communion in a Christian mass, bells ring at key points
throughout the story. They take on a sinister and ghostly tone as Montresor nears the completion of the ritual.
“I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a
jingling of the bells.” This critical moment comes near the end of the story and precedes what may be
considered Montresor’s only inclination of guilt “My heart grew sick.” Though he quickly attributes this
feeling to the dampness of the vault, it clearly indicates the finality that the jingling of the bells symbolize.
The Cask of Amontillado: Essays and Criticism 12
13. Poe also skillfully fills the story with allusions to darkness and light. The vault has presumably become a
place of such evil that no amount of light can penetrate its darkness. The flambeaux are themselves
reminiscent of the lighting of candles at Catholic masses. When they come to the end of the catacombs
Montresor notes: “The foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.” The flickering
light, usually symbolic of the presence of the Holy Spirit, instead burns more like the eerie fires of hell.
Montresor’s ritual of revenge is performed with the careful deliberation of a sacred mass. Poe perverts every
holy ritual into a macabre ceremony of death. Even the apparently benign relationship between Montresor and
Fortunado is entirely ironic and saccharine sweet. Like Judas kissing Christ at the Last Supper, Montresor
ventures to betray Fortunado while acting as a friend. The parody of religious ritual coils around the story and
threads each word together into a pattern of demonic significance. No matter the insult suffered by Montresor,
there can be no doubt that he is the architect of a cruel revenge and the priest of a wicked black mass.
Irony in The Cask of Amontillado
There has never been any doubt or disagreement about the fact that Edgar Allen Poe is a master of the short
story form. His painstaking word selection, his attention to every detail, his obsession over creating a single
powerful effect—these qualities have all justifiably contributed to this reputation. Nowhere is his
craftsmanship, or his expert use of irony as a unifying element, more apparent than in his short masterpiece,
“The Cask of Amontillado.”
Unity in theme, plot, and structure are all elements that were impeccably incorporated in The Cask of
Amontillado. In the first sentence we are given the singular and simple theme: Montresor’s revenge. The plot
of the story revolves tightly around the execution of his betrayal and retribution against Fortunado. And
ultimately, all of these elements are sewn together and given their final meaning through the pervasive use of
There are two categories of irony in The Cask of Amontillado, the ironies that Montresor manipulates and
controls in the story, and the ironies that the author creates. As the story progresses we come to realize that,
though Montresor is the main voice in the story, Poe subtly provides clues that bring us closer to
understanding the truth behind Montresor’s words.
The first obvious irony is the fact that Montresor made sure that his servants would be gone by ordering them
to stay. The use of reverse psychology is rampant throughout the story and demonstrates how perverted and
backwards all of the relationships in the story have become. Because Montresor is the narrator, we are aware
of the duplicity between what he is thinking, versus what he says: “Come, we will go back; your health is
precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was.” Montresor is obviously
biting his tongue as he says these words, but does so amiably. He also drops a subtle hint (“as I once was”)
about his true feelings of humiliation that are at the root of his vengeance.
Montresor has carefully planned this elaborate ceremony, which has elements of a Christian mass, but is
macabre and evil. He toasts to Fortunado’s good health and long life over a glass of wine, which is usually a
blessing. However Montresor and the audience are well aware that his intentions couldn’t be further from his
words. Every word of discourse between the two men is given a grave double meaning with the knowledge of
Montresor’s intent. He reassures Fortunado that he “will not die of a cough”, and is continually urging
Fortunado not to go down into the vaults. Every plea to go back is actually a prodding downwards into the
Montresor understands he will go in spite of those pleas and, in fact counts on Fortunado’s hubris in his
connoisseurship of wines to lure him into his tomb. Montresor baits him by asking him whether a “pipe of
Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado 13
14. Amontillado” sherry he had recently purchased is the genuine article. But we find out early on that Montresor
opportunistically views Fortunado’s love of wines as a “weakness” to be exploited.
While Montresor is quite pleased with his clever plan, he has left himself open for criticism by candidly
sharing his intimate thoughts. He incidentally provides us with two main criteria by which to judge the
success or failure of his revenge.
The first criterion is: “I must not only punish but punish with impunity.” Impunity is defined as “exemption
from punishment.” Montresor has to punish Fortunado without condemning himself. He retells the story with
a tone of pride, but given that it is fifty years after the murder, it seems likely that the monologue is a more of
a confession than a boast. Furthermore, if he is confessing to repent for the sin, the pleasure he takes in the
relating the details of the crime contravenes the confession. So either way, he has not punished with
The second criterion is: “[A wrong] is unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him
who has done the wrong.” To successfully attain retribution, Montresor must make Fortunado understand the
nature of the wrong he perpetrated. But Fortunado never knows why he is walled up, and even thinks it’s a
joke. He certainly dies quickly after being entombed and since one cannot further harm the dead, Montresor
has failed to avenge the insult he had suffered.
The greatest irony in The Cask of Amontillado is the dramatic irony created by the fact that Montresor is
telling, or retelling, the story to someone “who so well knows the true nature of my [Montresor] soul.” The
structure of the story seems to be a confession, told fifty years after the actual event. Though we are told the
story through Montresor’s voice, the use of irony provides us with insight to the double meanings behind the
Duplicity and Doubling in "The Cask of Amontillado"
When Montresor decides that it is time to seek revenge for the ‘‘thousand injuries of Fortunato,’’ he does
not make his feelings known. Although the honor code of the day might have called for a public challenge and
a duel to the death, Montresor decides that he will not give "utterance to a threat.'' Instead, while he waits for
his opportunity, he behaves as though nothing is wrong: ‘‘It must be understood, that neither by word not
deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good-will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face,
and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.''
The word for Montresor's behavior is "duplicitous." It means that he is concealing his true motives and
feelings beneath a deceptive exterior, that he is being two-faced. The word, of course, is related to "duplicate"
and "duplex" and ‘‘double.’’ Montresor is behaving as his own opposite in his dealings with Fortunato. As
the story progresses, however, it will become clearer that the other side of Montresor's personality is not the
smiling face he offers to Fortunato.
The story is filled with twins and opposites. The characters' names, for example, bounce off each other, two
echoes of the same idea. The name "Montresor" carries the idea of "treasure," and "Fortunato" implies
"fortune." Two sides of the same coin, as it were. As the two men walk along the damp passageway,
Montresor offers Fortunato two bottles of wine: Medoc, thought to have medicinal powers and promising to
‘‘defend us from the damps,’’ and De Grave, a wine whose name means ‘‘of the grave.’’ Just afterward,
Fortunato makes a "gesticulation," a secret gesture that demonstrates that he is a member of the Free and
Accepted Masons, a secret fraternal order. In a scene that calls to mind nothing so much as Harpo Marx,
Montresor produces a trowel from beneath his cloak, a sign that he, too, is a mason but of a different, deadly
Irony in The Cask of Amontillado 14
15. As the story opens, the men seem more different than alike. Montresor is cold, calculating, sober in every
sense of the word. Fortunato greets him with "excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much.’’
Montresor wears a black mask, a short cloak and a rapier or sword, the very image of a distinguished
gentleman. Fortunato, on the other hand, is dressed for "the supreme madness of the carnival season’’ in
motley, the jester's costume, complete with ‘‘tight-fitting parti-striped’’ clothing and a pointed cap with
jingling bells at the tip. A drunken man with bells on his hat seems no match for Montresor, and it is hard to
imagine Fortunato as ‘‘a man to be respected, and even feared’’ as he sways and staggers and fixates on the
prospect of tasting more wine, the Amontillado.
Montresor continues his duplicity. He suggests that Luchesi could taste the wine instead of Fortunato,
knowing that the suggestion will make Fortunato all the more eager to taste it himself. He repeatedly fusses
over Fortunato's health, proposing that they ought to turn back before the foul air makes his "friend'' ill, when
in fact he intends that Fortunato will never leave the catacombs alive. He emphasizes the ways in which they
are opposites: ‘‘You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to
be missed. For me it is no matter.''
Up to this point, even the conversation between the two establishes their different purposes. Looking over
Montresor's shoulders, the reader is aware of the irony when Fortunato says, "the cough is a mere nothing; it
will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough’’ and Montresor replies, ‘‘True true.’’ Although Montresor's
plans have not yet been revealed, the reader knows with growing certainty that Fortunato will die. When
Montresor and Fortunato share the therapeutic Medoc, Fortunato drinks ‘‘to the buried that repose around
us,’’ and Montresor replies, "And I to your long life.''
From this point, things begin to change. Montresor's determination to hold himself as unlike Fortunato slips,
and he becomes more like him with every step, as the wine works its effect on both of them. "The wine
sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled. My own fancy grew warm with the Medoc.’’ Previously, Fortunato
has twice taken Montresor's arm to steady himself as they walk. Now Montresor returns the gesture,"I made
bold to seize Fortunato by an arm above the elbow.’’ When they reach the end of the final passageway, Poe
presents a flurry of twos: two men in ‘‘the interval between two of the colossal supports’’ confronted with
‘‘two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet.'' But as soon as Montresor fastens the padlock on
the chain around Fortunato's waist, the two are one.
Now, when Fortunato speaks, Montresor echoes his words."The Amontillado!’’ Fortunato cries out, and
Montresor replies, ‘‘True, the Amontillado." "Let us be gone,’’ says Fortunato, and Montresor replies,
"Yes, let us be gone.'" 'For the love of God, Montresor!’’ cries Fortunato. "Yes," Montresor says, ‘‘for the
love of God!’’ Montresor becomes unnerved when Fortunato abruptly stops the game, when he refuses to
speak any more. "I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient.’’ Why does Montresor wish Fortunato to
keep speaking? Why does he shine his torch inside, hoping for a response? It is when he gets no answer
except "only ajingling of the bells'' that his heart grows sick.
The most chilling moment in the story happens, surely not coincidentally, at midnight (the time when the two
hands of the clock are in one place), when the two men transcend human speech and communicate their
oneness in another voice. Fortunato begins it with "a succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly
from the throat of the chained form.’’ At first, Montresor does not know how to respond to this
communication. He moves ‘‘violently back,’’ hesitates, trembles. He waves his rapier around, fearing that
Fortunato is coming for him, but is reassured at the touch of the solid walls. ‘‘The thought of an instant,’’
the realization that Fortunato is tightly bound, makes Montresor feel safe, and his reaction is dramatic and
bizarre: "I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I reechoed I aided I surpassed
them in volume and in strength.’’ It is difficult to imagine the sounds produced by two men, enemies and
opposites, hundreds of feet underground howling at midnight in a damp stone chamber. Surely the volume
and the echoes would not yield two distinct voices, but one grotesque sound. For that moment, the two are
Duplicity and Doubling in "The Cask of Amontillado" 15
After the wall is completed, fifty years pass before Montresor tells the story. What has he learned in the
intervening years? Has he felt remorse? For most of the story, Montresor's language is clear and direct,
although the formality of nineteenth-century speech may seem difficult to modern readers. In the story's
opening paragraph, told fifty years after the crime, the language is uncharacteristically convoluted and
opaque: "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the
avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.'' Most readers pause over these
lines, stopping to sort out the redresser and the redressed from the redressee. If the roles are confusing, it is
because in Montresor's mind the lines between avenger and victim are no longer distinct. When Montresor
speaks the story's last line, "In pace requiescat'' ("rest in peace’’), is he speaking of Fortunato or of himself?
By the end of the story, the two are so connected that it is all the same.
If Poe did intend the two men to be read as twins or doubles, what can he have meant by it? Critics have been
pondering this question for over a century and a half. Daniel Hoffman, in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe,
explores Poe's theme of "the fate of the man haunted by his own double, his anima, his weird.’’ When one of
Poe's protagonists is wrestling with guilt, Hoffman explains, he sometimes "doubles his character and then
arranges for one self to murder the other by burying him alive. In repeatedly telling stories of murderous
doubles ( ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart," "William Wilson,’’ and others), Poe was attempting to deal with his own
demons, his own repressed guilt. Poe biographer William Bittner claims that Montresor and Fortunato "are
two sides of the same man Edgar Poe as he saw himself while drinking.’’ For Betina Knapp, author of a
study titled Edgar Allan Poe, the ‘‘shadow figure emerges as a personification of the narrator's hostile
feelings and thoughts, symbolizing the repressed instincts of the personality.’’ In his criticism and his daily
life, Poe "felt himself striking back, at those forces in society or particularly individuals who might have
Characters encountering and slaying their doubles are found throughout history and throughout the world,
from Aristotle's story of a man who could not go out without meeting his "double'' to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
to Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader in Yoda's cave, killing him, and seeing that the face beneath the
mask is his own. The Germans have a name for the phenomenon doppelganger, meaning "double walker'' and
psychiatrists have recorded thousands of accounts of people who believe that they have actually encountered
mirror images of themselves, usually late at night. Like other archetypal images, the encounter with the
double, the other side of oneself, is a powerful image that has attracted and repelled for centuries. Poe
anticipated modern psychology with its id, ego and superego by showing through his stories that the monsters
outside are nothing compared to the monsters we carry within us.
Source: Cynthia Bily, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Bily teaches English at Adrian
College in Adrian, Michigan.
Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"
Edgar Allan Poe used the enclosure device, whether an actual physical enclosure or an enclosure alluded to on
the level of image and metaphor, in a highly artistic way. In much of his fiction, and specifically in ‘‘The
Cask of Amontillado’’ (1846), the device helps to focus the action, assists in plot development, and has a
profound impact on the main character, often affecting his personality. In his essay "The Philosophy of
Composition'' Poe remarked, ''A close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of
insulated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture.’’ A ‘‘circumscription of space,’’ that is, an
enclosure, I consider to be any sort of physical confinement that restricts a character to a particular area,
limiting his freedom. That Poe intended this confinement to have a certain power over narrative action is
indicated by the phrases ‘‘insulated incident’’ and ‘‘the force of a frame to a picture.’’ But confinement
Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" 16
17. in Poe's fiction, I will argue, also has power over a character and often causes him to do things he would not
ordinarily do. Such is the case, I believe, with the tale ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado.’’
Montresor, the narrator, it will be remembered, unlike the narrators in other tales (such as ‘‘The Tell-Tale
Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat’’) who have murdered their victims and then tried to conceal their bodies,
does succeed in concealing his crime, but it has so obsessed his memory and imagination that fifty years after
the act, he is able to render an exact, detailed description as though it occurred the previous day. Like the
narrator in "The Black Cat,'' Montresor uses an enclosure to conceal his victim, but Poe places more emphasis
on it in "The Cask of Amontillado'' by making it a vault which Montresor fashions himself, within his own
family catacombs under the city—an enclosure within a series of enclosures. One might argue that Poe uses the
same device in ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ for the narrator in that tale conceals his wife's body within a wall of his
cellar. The main difference lies in the fact that in "The Cask of Amontillado'' Poe centers the entire plot on the
journey through the catacombs and into the vault in which Fortunato is finally walled up. In the former tale,
Poe, while concentrating on the narrator's neurosis throughout the tale, dramatizes the main enclosure at the
climax. In "The Cask of Amontillado,’’ the enclosures are more directly related to the narrator's neurosis.
The journey of Montresor and Fortunato through the catacombs becomes gloomier and more ominous with
each step. Montresor relates: "We had passed through walls of piled bones, with casks and puncheons
intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs... .'The nitre!' I said; 'see, it increases. It hangs like
moss upon the vaults. We are below the river's bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we
will go back ere it is too late. Your cough—"It is nothing,' he said; 'let us goon.'’’
Furthermore, Montresor's language in the following passage emphasizes the enclosure:
We passed through a range of low arches ... and ... arrived at a deep crypt.... At the most
remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with
human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris.
Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth the
bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a
mound of some size. Within the wall... we perceived a still interior recess, in depth about four
feet, in width three, in height six or seven.
When Fortunato, at Montresor's urging, enters this tiny "interior crypt'' in search of the Amontillado,
Montresor quickly chains him to the granite wall and begins ‘‘to wall up the entrance of the niche.’’
Montresor's last comment and his description of the enclosures indicate a certain relish for the plan, its locale,
and the task of walling up his victim. He even pauses at one point to hear more precisely Fortunato's clanking
the chain and to take pleasure in it: "The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken
to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones.’’ As the narrator in ‘‘The
Pit and the Pendulum'' is the victim of the enclosure, greatly fearing the pit and its unknown horrors,
Montresor in this tale is the homicidal victimizer, fully aware of the horrors of enclosure, enjoying them, and
scheming to make them as terrifying as possible.
In spite of his quick and effective work, Montresor pauses twice more before he finishes. The first pause
occurs when Fortunato releases a ‘‘succession of loud and shrill scream." "For a brief moment I hesitated—I
trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess: but the thought of an instant
reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I reapproached the
wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed—I aided—I surpassed them in volume and in
strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still.’’ The frantic screams of Fortunato momentarily disturb
Montresor, until he is reassured by the thought of the locale—the enclosures—and ‘‘the solid fabric of the
Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" 17
18. The second disturbance comes when he is nearly finished. He thrusts the torch through the remaining aperture
and lets it fall: ‘‘There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—on account of
the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position;
I plastered it up.'' At this crucial instant, Montresor tells us, his "heart grew sick’’; of course, he is quick to
assure us it is because of ‘‘the dampness of the catacombs.’’ Although Montresor is obviously fascinated
by the deadly enclosure, and uses it with satisfaction in walling up Fortunato, he also experiences moments of
horror while within it.
In this story, then, enclosure has a dual aspect. While it is Montresor's main source of delight in planning his
revenge, it does create momentary flashes of panic which almost disrupt his carefully planned revenge. One
wonders if on a subconscious level Montresor is not trying to isolate, and enclose, a part of himself and a
neurosis he hates—symbolized by Fortunato: Once his victim is walled up and Montresor's neurosis is in a
sense buried and out of sight, he believes he will probably regain some measure of sanity. But, of course, Poe
does not allow him this luxury, for the conclusion of the tale clearly indicates that even though the long dead
Fortunato may be buried, Montresor is still obsessed with the details of the crime and can recite them
complete and intact after half a century.
Like the narrators of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ Montresor buries his victim on his
premises. But Montresor goes much deeper than the other two narrators, deeper than his cellar, deeper even
than his family's subterranean burial ground, though he passes through it to reach the tiny crypt he has
prepared for Fortunato. It seems as if he is reaching deep into the past, into his ancestral heritage, to deal with
his current problem, Fortunato's insult. Like the other two narrators, he could have disposed of his victim in
any number of ways having nothing to do with an enclosure, but he used burial and chose his family's
catacombs, even his ancestors' bones, to conceal Fortunato's body: ‘‘Against the new masonry I re-erected
the old rampart of bones.’’ His act indicates that though he wants to be rid of his victim, he wants him to
remain within reach, that is to say, among the bones of his ancestral past.
Fortunato, as a character, has little importance; he becomes significant as the object of Montresor's
self-hatred, of the projection of his guilt for his aristocratic family's decline. Montresor says at one point,
when his unwitting victim remarks on the extensiveness of the vaults, that ‘‘the Montresors .. . were a great
and numerous family,’’ implying that they once were but no longer are; and Poe is careful not to mention
any immediate family of Montresor.
Like the other two narrators, Montresor, while taking pains to conceal his crime, must needs be found out.
However, unlike the other narrators, whose crimes are discovered shortly after they are committed,
Montresor's is not found out until he informs the reader of it fifty years afterward. So, although the crime
appears successful, the revenge is not, because Montresor has not freed himself from guilt—a fact indicated by
his rendering of details which have no doubt obsessed him through every day since the deed. His final words,
"In pace requiescat!’’, underscore Poe's irony. Montresor's rest has surely been troubled. Why he has
preferred anonymity, while sustaining this obsession during those years, might well be explained by his
unconscious fear of the guilt he would, once it was found out, consciously have to accept. And having to
accept it might drive him insane, as it does the narrator at the conclusion of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ or it
might force him to acknowledge the depth of his evil and truly repent—something Montresor is loath to do—as
it does the narrator of "The Black Cat,’’ who reveals to the reader that he ‘‘would unburthen [his] ... soul’’
before he dies.
It appears, then, that Montresor is making Fortunato a scapegoat and symbolically enclosing Fortunato, his
own identity, in a hidden crypt deep within his own soul—out of sight but certainly not forgotten. A similar
view has been expressed by Charles Sweet: ‘‘Montresor's premature burial of his mirror self in the
subterranean depths of his ancestral home (house equals mind in Poe) paints a psychological portrait of
repression; the physical act of walling up an enemy in one's home duplicates the mental act of repressing a
Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" 18
19. despised self in the unconscious.’’ Montresor, Sweet continues, ‘‘buries alive his scapegoat.... In
Montresor's unconscious mind he is not murdering Fortunato, but burying/ repressing that dilettantish side of
himself he can no longer endure, that side symbolized by Fortunato.’’ The enclosure Poe uses in "The Cask
Amontillado,’’ in addition to being the focal point of the plot, providing a journey through a series of
enclosures, and adding a sense of pervasive gloom and oppression to the tale, also becomes the central symbol
in my interpretation. These enclosures and the crypt in which Montresor buries Fortunato are metaphors for
Montresor's obsessive mind and the complex relationship between the reality of his disturbed inner self and
his controlled, rational outer appearance. They emphasize his neurosis and symbolize the guilt he wishes to
bury. Thus, Poe's enclosures in this enigmatic tale provide it with a thematic unity and an artistic integrity it
might not otherwise have.
Source: Leonard W. Engel, ‘‘Victim and Victimizer: Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado,'’’ in Interpretations:
A Journal of Idea, Analysis, and Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 26-30.
"The Cask of Amontillado": Some Further Ironies
Although readers of "The Cask of Amontillado'' have long been aware of the ironies that operate throughout
to give special intensity to this tale, an awareness of its Roman Catholic cultural and theological materials
adds to the irony and transforms clever trick into an episode of horror.
Throughout the entire episode—its planning, its execution, and its confession—Monsieur Montresor made
self-conscious use of cunning, plotting, and irony to wreak his revenge. The French nobleman tells his story of
the calmly calculated murder of his Italian aristocratic friend Fortunato. The crime had been perfectly
executed; for fifty years now the act has gone undiscovered. Every smallest detail had been so carried out as
to satisfy the criminal's two-fold purpose: Montresor would have revenge without himself getting caught; and,
as the avenger, he would make quite sure "to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’’
Thus he followed the motto on his coat of arms: ‘‘Nemo me impugne lacessit.’’
In the course of the narrative we learn how Montresor used the cutting edge of irony to give a surgeon's
neatness to his work and to secure the greatest possible delight for himself. With consummate evil he chose
the carnival season for his crime. The carnival in question was Carnevale, a three days' festivity ending at
midnight on Ash Wednesday, during which time, in Catholic cultures, people have one last fling of merriment
before beginning the somber Lenten fast. The season afforded a perfect setting for murder: servants were out
of the house celebrating, the noise and frenzy of the crowds allowed the murderer to go about his work
unnoticed, the high spirits of the season provided an appropriately ironic background for Montresor's playful
antics with his victim, and the somber, religious quiet that settled upon the city at midnight was just the right
mood for Fortunato's final hour. How appropriate that the victim go to his death in a catacomb while devout
Christians were about to gather in churches above to receive blessed ashes, symbol of their mortality, and to
hear the warning, "Remember man, you are dust and to dust you will return.’’
But overlying the story is another irony that Montresor is not conscious of, an irony that the reader is only
vaguely conscious of, although its presence is felt quite strongly in several places. Basic to appreciating this
irony is a correct understanding of sacramental confession. When Montresor killed Fortunato, he counted
upon the judgment of God as the final instrument of revenge. He killed his enemy by leading him into sins of
pride, vanity, and drunkenness; and without a chance for confession, Fortunato presumably would have been
damned with no capacity for striking back in time or eternity. Moreover, to assure his own salvation,
Montresor relied upon the power of sacramental confession for himself. For Montresor is not simply speaking
to a sympathetic friend; he is also making his deathbed confession to a priest.
"The Cask of Amontillado": Some Further Ironies 19
20. Montresor misses the irony of the phrase at the beginning of his confession, ‘‘You, who so well know the
nature of my soul,’’ with its implication that the penitent had been confessing to this priest for some time,
but had not been confessing all his sins. In theological terms these were bad confessions because the efficacy
of the sacrament hinges upon the sincere disposition and sorrow of the penitent for all his sins. When this is
lacking, the sacrament, instead of being an instrument of salvation, becomes an instrument of damnation.
Such confessions were sins of sacrilege. Montresor, therefore, has been confessing in vain.
And even now, when on his deathbed Montresor confesses all his sins, he is deluded in thinking himself
forgiven. He seems to be unaware, but the reader is not, of the gleeful tone of his confession. Montresor is
taking delight in the very telling of his crime—hardly the disposition of a truly repentant sinner. Thus, the "In
pace requiescat'' with which he finishes his confession is ambiguous. We can see it as a superficial expression
of sorrow or a quiet satisfaction in the lasting, unchallenged completeness of his revenge. Here, surely, is the
irony of a confession without repentance, an irony that makes the entire plan double back upon the doer.
Finally, Montresor's most serious miscalculation was his total failure to understand the ineffable power of
God's mercy. Apparently he had forgotten a fundamental lesson of his catechism, that a person in serious
sin—even without sacramental confession—can turn to God, out of love, and in an instant make an "act of
contrition'' that can win immediate pardon. Fortunato's plea, ‘‘For the love of God, Montresor,’’ was
directly addressed to his murderer, but implicitly it was a prayer expressing faith in the power of God's
loving-kindness. To this, Montresor was deaf; and when the prayer received a merciful hearing in heaven,
Montresor's stratagems backfired. Fortunato, lucky as his name suggests, was saved; Montresor, damned. The
final effect is one of horror. The ultimate irony is that of a puny creature playing games with God.
Source: James F. Cooney, '‘‘The Cask of Amontillado': Some Further Ironies,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction,
Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 195-6.
"The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and
‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’ one of Edgar Allan Poe's richest aesthetic achievements, certainly deserves
more searching analysis than it has received. To be sure, critics and anthologists have almost unanimously
expressed admiration for the tale; still, they have rarely attempted to find in it a consistently developed and
important theme. Indeed, most criticism of the story has the definitive ring that one associates with comments
on closed issues. Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, pronounces Poe's little masterpiece "a powerful tale of
revenge in which the interest lies in the implacable nature of the narrator.’’ More recently, Edward
Wagenknecht asserts that the tale derives its value from Poe's ‘‘absolute concentration upon the
A few adventurous critics, however, have tried to define the theme of "The Cask of Amontillado'' in terms of a
split or division within the psyche of the narrator-protagonist or within the author himself. Edward H. Davison
has ably related the story to Poe's broad concern with "the multiple character of the self.’’ Davidson
concludes that the narrator, Montresor, is capable of becoming two distinct beings with little affinity to each
other: '"The Cask of Amontillado' ... is the tale of another nameless I [sic] who has the power of moving
downward from his mind or intellectual being and into his brutish or physical self and then of returning to his
intellectual being with his total selfhood unimpaired.'' On the other hand, William Bittner, unconcerned with
the division within Montresor, speculates that the "two characters are two sides of the same man—Edgar
Poe.’’ Unfortunately, Davidson weakens his judgment by ignoring the role of Fortunato, and Bittner's
opinion, if valid, would tell us more about Poe than about Poe's story. Unfortunately, too, Richard Wilbur
makes no mention of the tale in ‘‘The House of Poe,’’ a brilliant and perhaps seminal essay in which he
characterizes the ‘‘typical Poe story’’ as made up of ‘‘allegorical figures, representing the warring
"The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity 20
21. principles of the poet's divided nature.’’
In their emphasis upon the psychological "effect’’ produced by ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado,’’
Wagenknecht and others imply that Poe's story has a great deal of art and little or no meaning. In fact,
Wagenknecht goes so far as to categorize it with those tales from which Poe deliberately "excludes the ethical
element.'' Once drained of "thought'' or serious implication, ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ becomes little
more than a remarkably well-executed incident, a literary tour de force whose sustained excitement or horror
justifies its existence. It degenerates into an aesthetic trick, a mere matter of clever manipulation, and cannot
be considered among Poe's major triumphs. Perhaps it is this sense of the work's empty virtuosity which leads
W. H. Auden rather loftily to belittle it.
I believe that "The Cask of Amontillado'' has discouraged analysis because, uniquely for Poe, it makes its
point in a muted and even subtle manner that seems deceptively like realistic objectivity. Proceeding in a style
that Buranelli calls "unencumbered directness,'' the narrator does not, like the protagonist in ‘‘The Tell-Tale
Heart,’’ loudly and madly proclaim his sanity; unlike the main characters in ‘‘The Imp of the Perverse,’’
‘‘The Black Cat,’’ and ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ Montresor never suffers the agonizing hallucinations that
lead to self-betrayal; moreover, he does not rant, like William Wilson, about his sensational career of evil or
attempt, as does the nameless narrator of "Ligeia," an excruciating analysis of his delusions and terrors.
Instead, he tells his tale with outward calm and economy; he narrates without the benefit of lurid explanations;
he states facts, records dialogue, and allows events to speak for themselves. In short,"The Cask of
Amontillado'' is one of Poe's most cryptic and apparently noncommittal works.
Yet, though the tale restricts the amount of meaning directly divulged, almost all of its details fuse into a
logical thematic pattern. Action and dialogue that at first appear accidental or merely horrific appear, upon
close examination, to have far-reaching connotative value. The usual critical presumption that Montresor and
Fortunato provide the narrative with a convenient Gothic "villain" and "victim'' must give way to the view that
they are well-conceived symbolic characters about whom Poe quietly gives a surprising amount of
information. In addition, the setting and pervasive irony of the tale do not merely enhance the grotesque effect
Poe obviously intends; more importantly, they contribute their share to the theme of the story. In short, "The
Cask of Amontillado'' is a work of art (which means it embodies a serious comment on the human condition)
and not just an ingenious Gothic exercise.
I should like to suggest that Poe's tale presents an ironic vision of two men who, as surrogates of mankind,
enter upon a "cooperative'' venture that really exposes their psychological isolation. This theme of mock union
disguising actual self-seeking intimates that the placid surface of life is constantly threatened and belied by
man's subterranean and repressed motives. It also implies that, no matter how beguiling the surface may seem,
human division is more "real" than union. Of course, Poe clearly shows the human affinities that make even a
pretense of union possible and convincing, but he also reveals his characters' refusal to recognize or
acknowledge the binding quality of those affinities. Moreover, as my consideration of the story will seek to
prove, Poe suggests that man's inability to act upon these affinities leads to the self-violation that ultimately
All the major facets of "The Cask of Amontillado’’—action, the calculated contrast between Montresor and
Fortunato, and the setting—emphasize the characters' relatedness and differences. In the first of the main
incidents, the two men come together only to maintain their psychological sepa-rateness; in the second, they
undertake an ostensibly common journey, but pursue divergent goals; and in the denouement, when the
murderer should emancipate himself from his victim, he becomes psychically attached to him. Moreover,
Poe's almost obtrusive point-by-point comparison of the two characters demonstrates that they possess
unusual similarities concealed by incompatibilities. Even the masquerade setting subtly establishes the fact
that the two men reverse, during the carnival season, the roles they play in "real" life: Fortunato, normally an
affluent and commanding man, dwindles into a pitiful dupe, and Montresor, who considers himself a
"The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity 21
22. persecuted, social nonentity, takes control of his enemy's destiny and is controlled by it.
The masquerade setting is essential to the meaning of "The Cask of Amontillado.'' Through it, Poe
consciously presents a bizarre situation in which the data of the surface of ordinary life are reversed.
Fortunato, we learn, impresses the narrator as a ‘‘man to be respected and even feared,’’ a man capable of
highhandedly inflicting a ‘‘thousand injuries’’ and "insults." His social importance is more than once
insisted upon: ‘‘You are rich, respected, admired, beloved.’’ In addition, as a member of a Masonic lodge,
he obviously patronizes Montresor: ‘‘You are not of the Masons ... You? Impossible! A mason?'' With a
touch of self-important loftiness, he admits that he has forgotten, perhaps as something trivial, his
companion's coat of arms. Yet, Fortunato's supremacy dissolves in the carnival atmosphere: though he is a
man of wealth and status, he is, for all the abilities implied by his success, an extremely vulnerable human
being whose nature is revealed by his costume, that of a fool or jester: "The man wore motley. He had on a
tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells.’’ Absurdly off
guard, he has obviously surrendered to the camaraderie of the occasion; he has drunkenly and self-indulgently
relaxed his customary vigilance for the trusting mood of the season.
Montresor, on the other hand, is bitterly obsessed with his fall into social insignificance. He announces to
Fortunato, with a submissiveness that masks his monomaniacal hatred, "You are happy, as once I was. You
are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter.’’ At another point, when his besotted and insensitive
companion expresses surprise at the extensiveness of his vaults, he answers with pride: ‘‘The Montresors ...
were a great and numerous family.’’ We must remember, too, that his plan to kill Fortunato, deriving from
family feeling and a sense of injured merit, is in accordance with his coat of arms and motto. He regards
himself as the vindicator of his ancestors, "The human foot d'or’’ about to crush the ‘‘serpent rampant
whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.’’ In other words, Fortunato's prosperity has somehow become
associated in his mind with his own diminution. His decision to destroy his enemy, pointedly explained in his
motto, ‘‘Nemo me impune lacessit," ("No one insults me with impunity’’) indicates that he suffers from a
deep dynastic wound. Montresor, then, feels that Fortunato has, by ignoring his ancestral claims, stolen his
birth-right and ground him into disgrace.
Yet, during the carnival, he is transformed into a purposive man to be feared. Intellectual and implacable, he
designs his evil as if it were a fine art. He facilely baits his powerful adversary with a false inducement; he
lures him deeper and deeper into the sinister vaults with cajolery and simulated interest in his health. The
preposterous case with which he manages Fortunato demonstrates how completely he has become the master
of the man who has mastered and humiliated him. In the subterranean trip toward the fictitious amontillado,
Montresor momentarily regains his birthright and reestablishes his family's importance by giving dramatic
substance to the meaning of his coat of arms and motto. Of course, we must ask later whether his triumph is
delusive and fleeting or whether, as Davidson declares, he returns to the real world with his "total selfhood
The carnival world, then, inverts and grotesquely parodies the actual world. From the beginning of the tale,
when Montresor explains the evil motive behind his geniality toward Fortunato, Poe presents a picture of life
in which man is bifurcated and paradoxical, dual rather than unified. We see that casual contacts, like
Fortunato's meeting with Montresor, may be deeply calculated stratagems; people who greet each other as
friends may be enemies; words of kindness and invitation may be pregnant with deceit; helpless gullibility
may be allied with talent and firmness; and love may cloak hatred. Everywhere, opposites exist in strange
conjunction. One recalls William Wilson's bewilderment as he contemplates the fact that his benign Sunday
minister can "double'' as a cruel teacher on weekdays: "Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for
Clearly, the oppositions and disharmonies contained within individual men project themselves into the world
and turn it into an ambiguous arena where appearances and words belie themselves. Every aspect of life is
"The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity 22
23. potentially deceptive because it has a double face. If universal unity once existed, as Poe speculates in Eureka,
such harmony no longer prevails in a world where all is only remotely akin but more immediately
heterogeneous and in conflict. Significantly, even in the midst of his bitter feud with his namesake, William
Wilson entertains the "belief of my having been acquainted with the being who stood before me, at some
epoch very long ago—some point of the past even infinitely remote.’’ Yet, he dismisses this insight as a
‘‘delusion’’ and persists in his enmity toward the second William Wilson. It is not surprising, then, that
man's internal discord recreates "reality" in its own image and that single words, like single persons, contain
diverse and incompatible meanings. Montresor's wine "vaults,'' which contain the precious amontillado,
become Fortunato's burial "vaults." Fortunato boasts of his membership in a Masonic order, but it is the
narrator, who as a different kind of mason, walls up and suffocates his enemy. For Fortunato, Montresor's coat
of arms and motto are mere emblems, hardly to be given a second thought, whereas for the latter they are
spurs to malevolent action. In one of the most brilliant scenes in the story, the entombed victim's shrieks
express his agony; the murderer imitates these shrieks, but his clamor is a gleeful parody of pain. In fact, both
men once utter almost identical sentences to express the contrary emotions of terror and joy:
‘‘Let us be gone." "Yes", I said, ‘‘let us be gone.’’ ‘‘For the love of God, Montresor!"
"Yes," I said, "for the love of God.’’
Poe's irony in ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ extends to many details that invest life with an eerie
inscrutability. Fortunato, the fortunate man, is singled out for murder. Montresor, ‘‘my treasure,’’ locks
within himself a treasure of ancestral loathing which impoverishes his nature. Both characters, it soon
becomes evident, are intoxicated, one with wine and the other with an excess of intellectualized hatred.
Fortunato, on his way to certain death, ironically drinks a toast to "the buried that repose around us.’’ Before
his last colloquy with his companion, Montresor expresses a perverse impulse of his being and calls Fortunato
"noble.’’ The irony of the last words of the tale, ''In pace requiescat,'' is only too evident. So too is the irony
of the method by which the narrator, in ordering his servants to remain at home during his announced
"absence," insures that they will be away while he perpetrates his crime safely at home.
Obviously, the ironic pattern of "The Cask of Amontillado'' adumbrates a world caught in a ceaseless
masquerade of motive and identity. Nevertheless, Poe does not naively cleave the world into two
irreconcilable antinomies. Instead, he demonstrates that Montresor's dissimulation is an unnatural and
unbearable act. For in spite of himself, the narrator's self-divisive behavior affronts his own need for a unified
psyche and conscience. After all, he really longs to be what Fortunato is and what he and his family once
were. In short, the major ironies of ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ are that Fortunato represents Montresor's
former self and that the latter deludes himself in imagining that he can regain his "fortune'' by the violent
destruction of his supposed nemesis. Ironically, he turns his energy and genius against himself, against the
memory of his lost eminence. Once again, then, Montresor resembles Fortunato in being the dupe of his own
crazed obsessions; in the truest sense, he is as much a fool as the wearer of motley. Contrary to Davidson's
belief that the narrator recovers his total selfhood after the crime, Montresor is broken on the wheel of a world
in which violence is simultaneously an internal and external action. It is in accordance with this principle that
the narrator in ‘‘The Black Cat'' feels that in hanging his pet he is "beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of
the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.’’ Montresor no more achieves his revenge than his victim comes
into the possession of the amontillado.
In the final analysis, like so many Poe characters, Montresor fails because he cannot harmonize the disparate
parts of his nature and, consequently, cannot achieve self-knowledge. His mind overrules his heart as much as
Fortunato's drunken goodfellowship—his trusting heart—has repealed his intellect. Fortunato's ironically
meaningful words, ‘‘You are not of the brotherhood,’’ imply, on the symbolic level of the tale, that
Montresor lives too deeply in his plots and stratagems to have any warm affiliation with mankind; still,
though he prides himself that he can commit murder with impunity, he cannot completely eradicate those
subconscious feelings which establish—no matter what he wills or intellectually devises—his relatedness to
"The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity 23
24. Fortunato. Just as William Wilson's refusal to recognize his "conscience" does not eliminate it or deprive it of
retributive power, Montresor's intellectualization of his actions does not divest them of their psychological
consequences. He remains so divided against himself that, as he consummates his atrocity, it recoils upon
him; the purposefulness with which he initiated his plan almost immediately distintegrates. As his victim
screams, he momentarily hesitates, trembles, and unsheathes his rapier. With unwitting self-betrayal, he refers
to the buried man as the "noble Fortunato.'' In addition, he confesses that, at the final jingle of his foe's bells,
"my heart grew sick.'' Even though he obtusely attributes his sickness to an external cause, ‘‘the dampness of
the catacombs,’’ his rationalization should deceive no alert reader. And lastly, his compulsively detailed
rehearsal of his crime after fifty years demonstrates that it still haunts and tortures his consciousness.
The ending of ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ leaves little doubt as to the spiritual blindness of the
protagonist. Montresor resembles many Poe characters who, with no self-awareness, project their own internal
confusions into the external world. William Wilson, for example, never understands that his conflict with his
strange namesake represents an inner turmoil; with almost his last breath, he declares that he is "the slave of
circumstances beyond human control.’’ Certainly, the narrator of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ fails to discover
that the insistent heartbeat he hears and cannot escape is his own rather than that of the murdered old man. To
cite a final example, the main character in ‘‘The Black Cat’’ never suspects that his mutilation of Pluto is
an objective equivalent of his own serf-impairment. Montresor, I am convinced, should be included in Poe's
gallery of morally blind murderers; he does not understand that his hatred of Fortunato stems from his inner
quarrel with ‘‘fortune’’ itself. Undoubtedly, Fortunato symbolizes Montresor's lost estate, his agonizing
remembrance of lapsed power and his present spiritual impotence. With a specious intellectuality, common to
Poe's violent men, Montresor seeks to escape from his own limitations by imagining them as imposed upon
him from beyond the personality by outside force. But the force is a surrogate of the self, cozening man
toward damnation with all the brilliant intrigue Montresor uses in destroying Fortunato.
Source: James W. Gargano,'"The Cask of Amontillado': A Masquerade of Motive and Identity,’’ in Studies
in Short Fiction, Vol. IV, October, 1966 - July, 1967, pp. 119-26.
The Cask of Amontillado: Compare and Contrast
1830s: An Anti-Masonic political party is formed in the United States, intended to counterbalance the
supposed political influence of the Free and Accepted Masons. It is the first important third party in United
1990s: With six million members but no central authority, the Free and Accepted Masons are found in nearly
every English-speaking nation, including a large membership in the United States. They are more widely
known for social activities and for community service than for political activity.
1840s: Poe, who did not graduate from college, is able to read Latin, French, German, Italian and Spanish, and
expects his readers to have basic competence in Latin and French.
1990s: Most American college graduates have taken two years or less of foreign language study.
1840s: Writers are concerned that Americans do not have the attention span required to read long works of
fiction. Poe writes, "We now demand the light artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the
pointed, the readily diffused in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.’’
1990s: Educators and parents complain that young people, raised with televisions and computers, do not like
to read for long periods, but prefer to get their information in short, visual forms. Politicians complain that
voters will not listen to complex arguments and ideas, but are interested only in ‘‘sound bites.’’
The Cask of Amontillado: Compare and Contrast 24
25. The Cask of Amontillado: Topics for Further Study
Investigate the history of the Free and Accepted Masons, a group to which Fortunato apparently belongs. How
were Masons perceived in the United States during the nineteenth century? Why might Poe have chosen to
make Fortunato a member?
What is nitre (also known as potassium nitrate or saltpeter)? How would it form on the walls of the
catacombs? Why might it be harmful?
Research the field of heraldry, the medieval system of assigning and describing symbols displayed on a shield
to identify families. Learn enough of heraldry's special vocabulary to explain the conversation between
Montresor and Fortunato on the subject of Montresor's "arms."
Learn what you can about European gentlemen's attire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Fortunato has been enjoying the carnival, and is dressed in motley. Montresor wears a silk mask and a
roquelaire. What does the men's clothing reveal about their station in life, or about their character?
The Cask of Amontillado: Media Adaptations
The audio cassette collection The Best of Edgar Allan Poe(1987), read by Edward Blake, includes "The Cask
of Amontillado'' and thirteen other stories and poems. The set is published by Listening Library. A radio play
version of the story, originally broadcast on the NBC University Theater, is available on the audiocassette
Nosology; The Cask of Amontillado; The Fall of the House of Usher (1991), part of the Golden Age of Radio
Thrillers series issued by Metacom. Other audio presentations include "The Cask of Amontillado’’ (1987) in
the Edgar Allan Poe collection by Westlake House; An Hour with Edgar Allan Poe (1979), from Times
Cassettes; and Basil Rathbone Reads Edgar Allan Poe, a record album issued in 1960 by Caedmon.
The story has also been captured many times on film and videotape. Videotapes include The Cask of
Amontillado (1991) from Films for the Humanities; The Cask of Amontillado (1982) from AIMS Media; Tales
of Edgar Allan Poe (1987) from Troll; and a three-tape set that includes six stories by six authors, Classic
Literary Stories (1987) from Hollywood Select Video. Film versions include a 16mm film from BFA
Educational Media that is accompanied by a teacher's guide; another 16mm film from Films Incorporated,
1975; and a 35mm film from Brunswick Productions (1967) that analyzes and presents excerpts from the
The Cask of Amontillado: What Do I Read Next?
Bodies of the Dead and Other Great American Ghost Stories (1997) is a collection of thirteen classic stories
by Ambrose Bierce Edith Wharton Nathaniel Hawthorne and others.
Bram Stoker's Best Ghost and Horror Stories (1997) is a collection of fourteen spine-tingling stories by the
author of Dracula.
Restless Spirits: Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872-1926 (1997) collects twenty-two stories by
well-known and long-forgotten writers including Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (1995) demonstrates that the author of Little
Women had a darker and more humorous side.
The Cask of Amontillado: Topics for Further Study 25
26. "The Premature Burial’’ (1844), another one of Poe's tales of horror, is a catalog of anecdotes examining the
horrors of being buried alive.
"The Tell-Tale Heart’’ (1843) is Poe's tale of a murderer who, unlike Montresor, is driven mad by guilt.
In ‘‘The Imp of the Perverse’’ (1845), Poe explores a man's uncontrollable impulses to do things that he
knows will harm him—a recurring theme in Poe's fiction.
There are literally hundreds of anthologies of Poe's work to choose from. The Fall of the House of Usher and
Other Tales (1998) is widely available, and includes several of Poe's influential horror and detective stories.
Among the many Poe biographies, William Bittner's Poe: A Biography (1962) strikes the best balance
between the scholarly and the popular.
The Cask of Amontillado: Bibliography and Further Reading
Benton, Richard P. ‘‘Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado': Its Cultural and Historical Backgrounds,’’ in Poe
Studies,, Vol. 29, No. 1, June 1, 1996, pp. 19-21.
Bittner, William. Poe: A Biography, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1962, p. 218.
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe, Boston: Twayne, 1977.
Colton, George. Review of ‘‘Poe's Tales,’’ in American Whig Review, Vol. 2, September, 1845, pp.
Dana, Charles A. Review of Tales, in Brook Farm Harbinger, Vol. 1, July 12, 1845, p. 74.
Edinburgh Review, Vol. 107, April, 1858, pp. 419-42.
Griswold, Rufus Wilmot. Obituary in New York Tribune, Vol. 9, October 9, 1849, p. 2. Reprinted in Carlson,
Eric W., The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 28-35.
Gruesser, John. ‘‘Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado,'’’ in The Explicator, Vol. 56, No. 3, 1998, p. 130.
Harris, Kathryn Montgomery. ‘‘Ironic Revenge in Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado,'’’ in Studies in Short
Fiction, Vol. 6, 1969, pp. 333-335.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972, pp. 221, 224.
Knapp, Bettina L. Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984, pp. 152- 155, 180.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, originally published in Godey's Lady's
Book, 1847. Reprinted in The Portable Poe, edited by Philip Van Doren Stern, New York: Penguin, 1977, pp.
Randall, John H., III. ‘‘Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado' and the Code of the Duello,’’ in Studia Germanica
Gandensia, Vol. 5, 1963, pp. 175-84.
The Cask of Amontillado: What Do I Read Next? 26
27. Rocks, James E. ‘‘Conflict and Motive in 'The Cask of Amontillado,'’’ in Poe Newsletter, Vol. 5,
December 1972, pp. 50-51.
Botting, Fred. Gothic, New York: Routledge, 1996.
A clear and accessible introduction to Gothic images and texts in their historical and cultural
contexts. Includes a chapter on twentieth-century Gothic books and films.
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe, Boston: Twayne, 1977.
An overview of the life and work for the general reader, which includes a chronology, a
helpful index, and a no-longer-current bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
Carlson, Eric W., ed. The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism Since 1829, Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1966.
A collection of reviews and commentaries, especially interesting for the remarks by those Poe
influenced, including the French poet Charles Baudelaire, Russian novelist Fyodor
Dostoevski, and British and American writers including Walt Whitman William Butler Yeats
and T.S. Eliot.
Howarth, William L., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays,
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
The articles in this collection are generally insightful and accessible to the general reader.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
At over eight hundred pages, this scholarly work is the definitive and insightful, though
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Neverending Remembrance, New York: HarperCollins,
A psychological approach to Poe's life, focuses on the writer's unresolved mourning as the
source of his troubles. Excellent for its description of the literary life of the nineteenth
Walsh, John Evangelist. Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, New Brunswick, N.J.:
Rutgers University Press, 1998.
A factual, not a conjecturing, account of what is known and not known about Poe's last days.
The Cask of Amontillado: Pictures
The Cask of Amontillado: Bibliography and Further Reading 27